New Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said Wednesday he was concerned about the plight of asylum seekers in Australia’s offshore detention centres, and hinted at changes to the policy of his predecessor Tony Abbott.
Around 1,600 people picked up from boats trying to reach Australia are being held in two detention centres on Nauru and Manus Island, having been told they had no chance of coming to Australia even if granted refugee status.
Abbott’s “stop the boats” policy was criticized for being too hardline, but also touted as one of the successes of his administration.
In an interview with Sky News on his ninth day in office after ousting Abbott, Turnbull acknowledged the detention policy was “controversial.”
“I have the same concerns about the situation of people on Manus and Nauru … as I think all Australians do,” Turnbull said.
“All policies change, but when we do make changes we will do so in a considered way and they will be made by the minister, myself [and] the cabinet.”
Turnbull told parliament the day after being sworn in last week that he would not be changing the government’s refugee policy.
Turnbull has to tread carefully around changing Abbott’s policies as 44 per cent of party members voted against him in the leadership challenge.
Many of the asylum seekers have languished in the detention centres for years as they refuse to return to their country of origin.
So far only four refugees have been resettled in Cambodia under an aid deal worth 55 million Australian dollars (39 million US dollars), with four more reported to have volunteered for resettlement.
Immigration Minister Peter Dutton, who kept his cabinet role despite being a supporter of Abbott, said he shared Turnbull’s concerns about the asylum seekers.
“If we need to sharpen our programmes, our policies, which will make it even harder for people smugglers to get through the net, that’s exactly what we’ll do,” Dutton told reporters.